When does a mosque stop being a church - or museum?

November 4, 2015

Heritage watchers are waiting to see whether Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Minister, Yalcin Topcu, who has called for the reopening of basilica-turned-mosque-turned-museum Hagia Sophia as a mosque, has retained his job.


Topcu, an independent, was given the interim post in the negotiations that followed the AKP’s failure to achieve an absolute majority in an earlier round of elections in June.


Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP or Justice and Development Party won a landslide victory in last Sunday’s elections, but as we went to press, posts still remained to be re-allocated.


Topcu describes the reopening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque as ‘my personal dream, my goal, my ambition.’


For 900 years the magnificent edifice was the central church in Christendom but reduced in 1935, after its 500-year career as the Imperial Mosque, to a museum under the secularising dictator Kemal Ataturk.


Topcu’s reappointment could therefore be significant for the future of relations with the West, signposting the direction of religious travel set by Islamist-leaning President Erdogan from the secularist path established by the founder of modern Turkey.




Elsewhere in Europe, other contested religious sites are being targeted by Islamists for prayer.


The future of the stunning Mezquita-Cathedral in Cordoba, once the heart of Muslim Andalusia but built upon a church, is attracting political controversy.


Isabel Ambrosio, mayor of Cordoba, would like to celebrate the 31stanniversary of UNESCO’s 1984 declaration of the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba as a World Heritage site this weekend (7/8 November).


Ambrosio is also campaigning for Cordoba to be chosen to host UNESCO’s 2017 Congress of World Heritage Cities.


Under the overall heading ’Controversy’, Andalusian broadcast network Canal Sur on 1 November reported the increasingly strained relations between the City and Cathedral Chapter in Cordoba over the Mosque-Cathedral.


While the Chapter emphasizes the Catholic nature of the sacred site, the City stresses its tourism value to both Christian and Muslim visitors.


Meanwhile, Muslim extremists press for the return of the Cathedral to its post-Christian status as a mosque.


As The Daily Beast reported in March under the title ISIS’ White Whale is Spain, the jihadists ‘publish pretty photographs of the Alhambra in Granada and the Mezquita of Córdoba, and they accompany them with poems and religious prophecies that promise sooner or later “the wayward daughter will come back to the father.”‘


Hagia Sophia


The status of sacred spaces changes gradually as cultures shift their guiding values – and more abruptly when the religions of victorious cultures replace those of the defeated.


In what was then Constantinople in Asia Minor, the Emperor Justinian built the basilica of Hagia Sophia, in 532, on the site of earlier churches.


It fell during the Ottoman conquest in 1453, and Sultan Mehmet II ordered that it should be used for Muslim worship.


More recently still, under Turkey’s secularist first President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in 1935 it was officially designated a museum.


In the words of the Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire, this change turned ‘a symbol of lived religious experience’ into ‘a site of memory’.


Antony Eastmond, a historian of Byzantine art at the Courtauld Institute, regards the change as an improvement. ‘By turning it from a mosque into a museum,’ he wrote, ‘he [Ataturk] made it a place for all people.’


Today, pressure is increasing for it to become a mosque once again.




There are differing views on this proposal. Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople says, ‘If it is to reopen as a house of worship, then it should open as a Christian church.’


Salih Turan, head of the Anatolia Youth Association disagrees: ‘Ayasofya is a symbol for the Islamic world and the symbol of Istanbul's conquest.  Without it, the conquest is incomplete.’


Mustafa Akyol, author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, takes a broader view. ‘People like me would like to see the shrine reopened to worship as a mosque/church, where both faiths can share the place for their respective rituals, with respect to each other’s faith.’


And the Paris Review quoting a Turkish columnistsuggested, ‘Let’s keep it as a museum from Monday to Thursday, turn it into a mosque on Friday, close it for holiday on Saturday and use it as a church on Sunday.’


The majority of those calling for Hagia Sophia to revert to become a mosque, however, appear to want it to be a space exclusively for Muslim prayer.


This attitude stands in stark contrast to Mehmet II’s original appropriation of the basilica.


Political analyst and director of the Istanbul-based NGO Building Bridges tells Lapido Media, ‘We shouldn’t view the conversion of Hagia Sofia as Islam taking over Christian Istanbul by force.


‘The Ottomans’ systematic approach in any city they conquered was to convert the most significant non-Muslim building and leave the rest.


‘And when Mehmet II conquered Istanbul there were Orthodox churches there, but he insisted that Syriac communities, Armenians and Catholics, should also establish churches in the city.’




Revanchism is the name given to the desire to recover lost land, and as C Christine Fair and Sumit Ganguly say in their book, Treading on Hallowed Ground, in time of war, sacred places ‘deepen’ a conflict by adding a religious dimension to it.


In many ways, the situation represents a tug-of-war between rural, largely religious Anatolia and cosmopolitan, largely secular Istanbul.


Atatürk was a proponent of secular nationalism, and indeed said: ‘I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea.’


Prime Minister, RecepTayyip Erdogan, is taking Turkey back in a religious direction, and Bulent Arinc, his deputy prime minister, says ‘There is a different Turkey now.’


Indeed, Arinc has expressed ‘happiness’ at the conversion of other 'Ayasofyas' in Iznik and Trabzond into mosques, and said of Istanbul’s museum, ‘We are looking at this innocent Ayasofya and wishing that its happy days come soon.’


One indicator of the intense feelings aroused by this issue can be found in the slogans that protesters brought with them to the museum this year – with placards saying ‘Ayasofya must be reopened as a mosque’ next to others saying ‘May our lives be sacrificed for Islam’.




Continuity is sometimes possible when religions and sacred spaces change hands by conquest.


According to historian Bernardino de Sahagún, the Nahua people at the time of the Conquest of Mexico had a major shrine at Tepeyac, in the northern part of what is now the Federal District of Mexico (Mexico FD), dedicated to the mother of the gods, whom they called Tonantzin, which means ‘our mother’.


‘Now that a church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is built there, they also call her Tonantzin, being motivated by the preachers who called Our Lady, the Mother of God, Tonantzin’, says de Sahagun.


He adds that their devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe was ‘suspicious, because everywhere there are many churches for Our Lady and they do not attend those; but they come from great distances here’ to what was previously the great pilgrimage site of Tonantzin.


Displaced spiritualities can also return.


During the French Revolution, the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was temporarily turned into the Temple of Reason, and the Feast of Reason celebrated there in November 1793, complete with an altar to the ‘goddess Reason’ personified by an actress draped in the national colours.


Today, Notre Dame is once again the cathedral of the Catholic Archdiocese of Paris.




The Mezquita/Cathedral in Cordoba is an architectural wonder – a beautiful mosque, built on the remains of a Visigothic church, with a Renaissance/Baroque cathedral in its centre. Its history is instructive.


Between 711, the Muslim conquest of Spain, and 784 CE, Christians were required by Muslims to share the space.


In 784 the Christian half was purchased by ‘Abd al-Rahman I, who razed the building to the ground.  He then replaced it with the vast and beautiful arcaded mosque or Mezquita, which was now out of bounds for Christians.  Much of it remains today.


After the Catholic re-conquest of Spain in 1236, the mosque again became a church, and various appropriate additions and adjustments were made.


In the 1520s, his Catholic Majesty King Charles V of Castile and Aragon completed the building of a cathedral in the middle of the arcade. It is still in use to this day.


Even Charles himself admitted: ‘They have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.’


As is the case in Istanbul, Muslims now seek to open the building for Muslim worship – and in the case of the Islamic State, to retake all al-Andalus – the Arabic name for Spain - for Islam.


The modern movement to permit Muslim worship has more modest aims: simply to allow Muslim prayer alongside Christian.


The Catholic Church is opposed to such prayer.


In March 2010, two Muslim tourists who had attempted to pray in the Mezquita were arrested for ‘crimes against religious sentiment’.


Noting that the Mezquita-Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site, Rutgers historian Lyra Monteiro argues that ‘in order to adequately preserve and promote the sites on the World Heritage List, the intangible heritage values of those locations must also be protected.’


She notes that interfaith prayers are now found in churches and mosques across Europe, and asks, ‘How symbolic and meaningful would it be to bring this perspective to a building universally acclaimed for its spirituality and beauty, and which is even today invoked as a legacy of the religious tolerance of the kingdom of al-Andalus?’




In his speech at Cairo’s Al Azhar in 2009, President Obama praised this same ‘proud tradition of tolerance’, citing Andalusia and specifically Cordoba as his first example. ‘That,’ he said, ‘is the spirit we need today.’


He did not mention the chilling effect of fifty Cordoba martyrs, who, concerned about scholarship, syncretism and assimilation, deliberately courted death either by slandering the Prophet or publically apostasising.  They – and the monk who recorded their deaths – were all beheaded between 850 and 859.


The Catholic Church has recently taken advantage of a Franco-era law to register not only the Mezquita-Cathedral complex but 800 other areas of public land in Cordoba, including a number of streets and two public squares, as Catholic property.


And in a follow-up move, the Church has changed the official name of the complex from ‘Mosque-Cathedral’ to ‘Cathedral’ – a change that even Google Maps briefly implemented, until protests forced them to reconsider.


Five former mayors of Cordoba have protested the name change, and the current mayor, Isabel Isabel Ambrosio, has pledged to restore the title to the public domain.


Yet the controversy continues. Santiago Abascal, leader of Vox, a populist party, claims Cordoba is ‘in the sights and the ideology of the most radical Islam.’


On the other hand, Guillermo Altares, a staff writer for Spain's highest-circulation daily El País, suggests Cordoba 'is missing an opportunity to become a pole of dialogue between religions at a moment when that is more necessary than ever.'


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